Pumpkin farms grab piece of the pie

Season: Jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving dessert make this a busy time


October 23, 2001|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Susan Hood and 12-year-old Eliot, the eldest of her five children, go to Knill's Farm in Mount Airy about this time every year, greeted by the chilly October wind, to shop for pumpkins. They buy several for carving jack-o'-lanterns and others for baking autumn treats.

Hood explained the rules for pumpkin shopping. "It has to be a bright, deep orange, with a good stem that has a nice curl to it. We try to get a variety of different-shaped and -sized pumpkins and see how they look together," she said. The family carves the pumpkins, with help from neighborhood kids, about a week before Halloween, she said.

Hood said the pumpkins remind her of a beloved time of year.

"Fall is my favorite season. I love it even more now than I did when I was a kid," said Hood, 39.

Hood and her son are among the throngs of shoppers in Carroll County buying pumpkins now.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 9 million pumpkins were harvested in the United States last year, 80 percent of which were available for sale that October.

It's no wonder Knill's Farm - and many others among the more than 1,000 farmers in Carroll - has welcomed its seasonal, pumpkin-pursuing customers.

"We sell bins and bins of pumpkins," said Jim Knill, owner of Knill's Farm. He said the family-owned and family-operated farm has sold pumpkins since 1992. "Some days, you're really busy. Some days you're not as busy, but business is pretty consistent," said Knill.

He charges 29 cents a pound for pumpkins, which can easily weigh more than 10 pounds.

"Pumpkin farms are very popular this time of year. It's one of those deals where the weather is super-pleasant and you can go out and pick your own pumpkin," said Bryan Butler of the county agricultural extension center.

The name pumpkin comes from the Greek word pepon, or large melon. About the 16th century, the pronunciation of the word pepon was modified by the French into pompon. The English changed pompon to pumpion. Shakespeare refers to the pumpion in his Merry Wives of Windsor. American colonists later changed the pronunciation to pumpkin.

Dating to at least 7000 B.C., pumpkins are believed to have first appeared in South America and were cultivated by the ancient Mayas and Incas. The gourds can range in size from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds.

Besides being used for ornamental and food purposes, pumpkins - with at least 11 varieties and white edible flowers - are believed to have medicinal value. At one time, Native Americans used pumpkins to cure snakebites.

Hood uses some of her pumpkins to make pumpkin crunch, a family spin on traditional pumpkin pie that adds a crumb topping made of nuts and butter.

The connection between the pumpkin and Halloween and Thanksgiving stretches over several centuries and several continents.

Halloween originally was the New Year's Eve of the Celts. They believed it was the night when the lost spirits of the dead would roam the earth in search of bodies to possess. The pumpkin's transformation into a jack-o'-lantern is an American twist on the ancient Celtic tradition of carrying hollowed-out vegetables as candleholders and lanterns to ward off those spirits.

During the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and their Native American friends ate dishes such as pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup. The gourd became a staple in the pilgrims' diet, and by 1622, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, ordered the pilgrims to plant more pumpkins to avoid starvation.

Throughout October, pumpkin festivals are held in all 50 states. A few festivals are held in Canada. In Maryland, a pumpkin festival is being held at Butler's Orchard in Germantown through Monday.

Festivals are not the only place the pumpkin's popularity is evident. More than 250 Web sites are devoted to pumpkins and pumpkin carving, including pumpkinmasters.com, halloween.com, pumpkinnook.com and jack-o- lantern.com.

But pumpkin season is short-lived.

Despite that, Hood said, "it's nice to have something that represents a certain time of year."

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